Colourful forms meet high concepts

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Artist Pen Robit on the opening day of his exhibition The Ontology of Form and Colour at Rosewood’s Art Gallery on March 3. Hean Rangsey

Pen Robit is having a busy 2022. In January he did a solo exhibition at Silapak Trochaek Pneik (STP) gallery called Wings of Tomorrow. Just two months later on March 3 he opened another mysterious and splendid exhibition called The Ontology of Form and Colour at Rosewood’s Art Gallery that will be on display through April 30.

The show comprises 21 paintings done with oil paints and U-90 enamel house paint on canvas along with two cabinets that contain the artist’s sketches, painting materials, books and personal belongings.

The Ontology of Form and Colour has Robit imaginatively contemplating notions of form and landscape in the context of man-made environments with the use of black and red symbolising the backdrop of Cambodia’s post-conflict reconstruction.

Deploying his signature Pollock-inspired drip technique, Robit has created a new series of twenty-one oil and enamel works that imitate and warp the motifs of the Khmer checked scarf (krama) and steel construction mesh.

Yean Reaksmey, STP’s founder and programme director, says in his opening speech that Robit’s fascination with the Krama and the history of it begin with his art teacher – the late Srey Bandaul – and his visit to the Killing Fields during his “Memory” workshop.

“At the Killing Fields he saw all the fabric scarves and piles of skeletons and these experiences inspired him to observe how the krama is used in Cambodia society and also see that as a metaphor for social class, status, national identity, conflict and modernisation.

“In this series he sees his paintings as the reliefs of sculptures or like fabric or the landscape. This way of seeing allows him to treat his paintings as something beyond a 2D composition and it provides him a different way of seeing and experiencing in making this artwork. I hope you will share this way of seeing with him in this body of work,” says Reaksmey.

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A man takes a photo of one of the 21 paintings from the exhibition on March 3 at Rosewood’s Art Gallery. Hean Rangsey

Robit further explains that he is focusing on the buildings, bridges and city to discover more colours. He learned the story of Khmer rouge from Srey Bandaul and it was through that history that he became interested in the krama.

He was fascinated by its history and how the krama has been used in Cambodian society – especially in the Khmer Rouge period when it reflected on people’s status and background.

“I’m sort of bringing together the Cambodian history of how the country stood back up and repopulated its cities and rebuilt other infrastructure after that period. I used the krama as my main concept as you can obviously see it in my paintings and it represents culture and tradition,” Robit explains to The Post.

Conceptualised and produced during a three-month Samnak Silapak art residency (October–December 2021) at STP, these canvases are the material expressions of Robit’s creative imagination and testament to the artist’s ongoing fascination with the karma – its form, texture, pattern and vibrant colours as well as its history.

In earlier works, Robit used the krama as the interconnecting fabric weaving together components across the body of society and in The Ontology of Form and Colour his inquiry into the krama continues as it is interwoven with urban and cosmopolitan conditions denoted by the use of U-90 industrial paint and the aesthetic of metal mesh.

Robit displayed incredible patience while creating the paintings for his latest show through use of a slow dripping method, says Reaksmey.

Nowadays, metal mesh is a fixture of urban landscapes throughout Cambodia and the rest of the world, so it serves as a visual shorthand for the spread of connectedness, modernisation and urbanisation projects.

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The show comprises 21 paintings made with oil painting and U-90 enamel paint on canvas. Hean Rangsey

Robit says this juxtaposition of local and global invokes the dualisms at play in his work: Positive and negative, life and death, beauty and ugliness, power and weakness, real and imaginary and utopia and dystopia.

“When the world is trapped in the ‘neo-dark-ages,’ so to speak, colour can always help to lighten up the day and our life – it offers the world some beauty and hope,” the 31-year-old artist says.

He says the reason the last two exhibitions he’s done are one right after the other is because the paintings in Wings of Tomorrow were finished quite some time ago but he couldn’t showcase them during the pandemic with everything shut down and restricted.

These new pieces took three months to finish and he was able to exhibit them right away with the support of Reaksmey.

The paintings were completed during Robit’s Samnak Silapak residency at STP. The program provides the artist time and resources including space for a library and financial resources and other administrative help so that artists can individually develop their craft and creatively explore new ideas.

“Our residency has been kindly supported by the US Embassy in Cambodia and Robit was the first recipient of the residency and now we have the second recipient which is Chan Dany. He’s now transforming the gallery into his research studio and developing his body of work. Hopefully he will finish someday soon,” says Reaksmey.

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Pen Robit (right) talks with artist Leang Seckon (left) at Rosewood’s Art Gallery on March 3. Hean Rangsey

Robit’s creative process allows interplay between control and release, a dynamic that is central to Buddhist conceptions of the path towards liberation.

“In this series, Robit evokes a sense of equanimity. On one hand, the artist’s established drip technique requires control and careful observation as the paints slowly settle and take shape on the canvas. On the other hand, the artist intuitively follows the colours’ properties and integrates them into a balanced and complementary composition,” says Reaksmey.

At the show’s opening the audience roamed around and took in the new paintings with an enthusiastic reception and a lot of questions for Robit about his technique and the meanings behind each work.

“I want to convey my deep gratitude for those of you here who have taken the time to visit my [show]. I am thankful to Reaksmey for helping me prepare my statement as well as prepare the exhibition. I would also like to thank Rosewood for making this exhibition possible. I hope everybody enjoys it. And of course I am happy to speak with you and share my ideas for those of you who are curious about my work,” said Robit at the opening.

The Ontology of Form and Colour is the first partnership between STP and Rosewood and Reaksmey says he hopes that they can continue to work together in the near future to promote the Cambodian artists and to enrich Cambodian culture.

For more information about Pen Robit’s artwork visit: Facebook.com/STPCambodia